He has taught special education for 17 years, coached basketball for more than 20, played on numerous championship softball teams and even saved the life of a prominent Grays Harbor educator.
Now Wayne Ross is headed south to embark on another chapter in his life.
The 63-year-old Ross retired from Hoquiam High School’s faculty last week. Although he doesn’t intend to entirely sever his Grays Harbor ties, he will be relocating to Arizona for much of the year — primarily to pursue his passion for slow-pitch softball.
“Instead of playing 100 slow-pitch games a year, I’m going to play 200 games,” Ross related with a broad smile. “That’s my pride and joy.”
Having purchased a home in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), he plans to spend perhaps eight months per year in Arizona. He’ll return to the Harbor during the late spring and summer.
A volunteer assistant this season for Hoquiam High School’s boys basketball team, he might even fly back to Washington later this month if the Grizzlies make it to regional or state competition.
Ross is familiar with the Phoenix area, having studied for a teaching degree at Arizona State University. Oddly enough, however, he has spent much of his educational career operating outside his comfort level.
In teaching special education, he has been required to understand the family-related difficulties experienced by many of his students, even though his own upbringing was much different.
“My (late) parents were married for 72 years,” Ross said. “(For kids with family issues), I didn’t walk in their shoes. I felt like I needed to walk in their shoes before I criticized them. They have feelings like everybody else, but they may have gotten a bad draw. I didn’t get a bad draw.”
Ross primarily has coached girls sports in Hoquiam and Aberdeen, although interscholastic female athletics didn’t even exist when he graduated from HHS in 1967.
He made that adjustment easily.
“Wayne truly cared about every single girl that ever played for him,” said Mindy McElliott, his longtime assistant at both Hoquiam and Aberdeen. “He not only wanted them to be successful on the basketball court, but also with academics and other sports. He especially wanted them to be successful later in life.”
By his own admission, Ross was not always the calmest of coaches. But he was able to keep a cool head when an off-the-field emergency developed in 2002.
An assistant football coach at Hoquiam at the time, Ross was driving to an early September practice (ironically by a route he had never previously taken) when he heard the screams of Diane Snell, a former Hoquiam classmate.
Her husband, longtime Aberdeen High School administrator and later school board member Jeff Snell, had collapsed with a heart attack outside their home.
Having undergone CPR training as part of his coaching duties, Ross immediately recognized the situation was serious.
“I got down there and I saw Jeff was pretty blue and I didn’t get any pulse,” he remembered.
With Hoquiam paramedics on the way, Ross administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and other CPR techniques.
A police officer who arrived at approximately the same time as the paramedics checked for vital signs.
“He told me, ‘I think we’ve got a pulse,’ and boy, was I happy,” Ross said. “I think, if I wouldn’t have been there, Jeff would have been a goner. We became pretty good friends after that.”
Snell died of another heart attack last year. Ross’ previous rescue effort was noted at the funeral.
“I do know that Jeff was so fundamentally grateful after he heard the whole story of what Wayne had done,” said Aberdeen High assistant principal Derek Cook, Snell’s son-in-law. “Our family cannot thank him enough for those 10 years that Wayne allowed him to be part of our lives. Looking back, it was a gift beyond price.”
The tall, lean Ross was a top-flight athlete at Hoquiam, starting for two years in basketball alongside the likes of Bill Quigg and Tom LaForest and also lettering in track and cross country.
In his case, however, the transition to teaching and coaching came slower than most.
After spending one year apiece at Columbia Basin and Grays Harbor colleges and serving a stint in the Marine Corps Reserve, Ross initially worked at the ITT Rayonier pulp mill. He was also employed by local distributors of Pepsi-Cola and Langendorf Bread before deciding that teaching and coaching represented his true calling.
“I feel like I can really, really relate to kids and I enjoy being around them,” Ross elaborated. “I am around a lot of kids that need help and understanding. I feel I have helped out in many ways. That was what I was supposed to do.”
Special ed teacher
He signed on as a long-term substitute, primarily teaching physical education, in 1991. Recognizing the fragility of that position, he wound up obtaining his teaching credentials at Arizona State and Portland State, then joined the HHS faculty as a special education teacher in 1996.
Although teaching special education has its challenges, Ross believes he was tempermanantly suited to the assignment.
“I’m a pretty easygoing guy,” he said. “It’s just getting into their heads and understanding them. If I didn’t understand them, I don’t think it would work.”
A natural coach
Coaching came even more naturally to Ross.
He was first hired as Hoquiam’s assistant girls basketball coach in 1991 and was promoted the following season when head coach Lu Sweet resigned.
With Hoquiam then playing larger schools from the Olympia and Centralia-Chehalis areas, Ross endured his share of lumps early in his coaching career. When reclassification allowed the Grizzlies to play schools closer to their enrollment, he produced a succession of winning teams, although only the 2002-03 club qualified for state.
He also coached girls tennis for a time at Hoquiam and has been a longtime assistant in football and baseball.
After 15 years of coaching girls basketball, Ross sensed what he regarded as dwindling support from some members of the Hoquiam administration.
“I felt if I was to keep coaching, I had to move on,” he said.
When Randy Hancock retired as Aberdeen’s girls basketball coach following the 2007 season, Ross jumped at the opportunity to move across Myrtle Street.
He retained his Hoquiam teaching job, creating an almost surreal situation. At one point a few years later, all three members of Aberdeen’s girls basketball coaching staff (Ross, McElliott and Wes Phillips) were Hoquiam teachers.
Prior to Aberdeen’s first girls game at Hoquiam Square Garden, Ross momentarily forgot himself and placed his briefcase on the Hoquiam bench. He tried to pass it off as a joke, but doubts that many people were fooled.
Once the game began, “I realized I had coached everybody (from both teams) on the floor,” he recalled.
For the most part, Ross enjoyed his five years coaching at Aberdeen and planned to retain the position through the 2012-13 season. Midway through last season, however, he realized that his stamina and enthusiasm for the job had waned.
“I don’t think I could have gone two more years,” he recounted. “I had quit going to summer camp. I was taking (playing) slow-pitch over coaching basketball during the summer and, in the early years, it was just the opposite. It was an injustice to the girls.”
Ross opted to relinquish the Bobcat position at the end of the 2012 campaign. In announcing his resignation, he said he remembered very few of the games but nearly all of the players and coaches he worked with. That hasn’t changed.
“Wins and losses are wins and losses,” he said. “I was really lucky that I had great players and great girls to coach.”
“I couldn’t choose one favorite moment Wayne and I shared because we had many of them,” McElliott recalled. “Being an assistant coach with Wayne was great because I truly felt he valued my opinion. I looked forward to going to the gym every day to be able to work alongside him.”
Like many veteran teachers and coaches, Ross believes education and athletics have changed — not always for the better.
He remembers Natalie Quigg, one of his standout players at Hoquiam, suffering a season-ending knee injury early in a season but insisting on attending every practice and game (with the exception of the long bus trip to Forks) for the remainder of the campaign. That type of dedication, Ross believes, is too often lacking today.
“There’s a lot of (current players) who have dedication, but it’s too easy to miss practices,” he said. “The parents were more silent back then. If I got into trouble and my dad (found out), I’d be in more trouble. If I got in trouble now, my parents would go to the school (to complain about the teacher or coach). It was good to get out, because I have a hard time with it.”
One activity for which Ross never lacked enthusiasm is slow-pitch softball. He has been a key component on championship teams for more than 40 years.
He was one of a group of Grays Harbor College students who formed a team under the sponsorship of Upland Cedar in 1969. During a golden era of men’s slow-pitch, when even regular-season games attracted large crowds to Franklin Field adjacent to the old Aberdeen YMCA on Market Street, the team made an immediate impact.
In 1972, Upland Cedar won a triple crown of sorts by capturing league and district championships and the Aberdeen Invitational. The latter was such a gate attraction that it was moved to Hoquiam’s Olympic Stadium to accommodate more than 1,500 spectators that witnessed Upland’s dramatic victory over Gene Lobe Oil of Bremerton in the title round.
Keeping the core group together, the club was later sponsored by Crosstown Motors, Miller Brewing distributors and the Ace of Clubs tavern before beginning a longtime association with Aro Glass, which retained the Ace of Clubs nickname as the Clubbers.
The team won the 1980 state championship, 15 consecutive Aberdeen Parks & Recreation League titles, nine state 35-and-over crowns and two Las Vegas World championships, among other accomplishments. They remain a force in regional and national 60-and-over age group tourneys.
Ross, Larry Lytle and Bob Paylor have been with the team since the outset and past and present Harborites Mike Hatley, John Delia and Don Mehlhoff have been active for more than 30 years. Hoquiam teacher Keith Reynvaan, another original member, stayed with the club until family and coaching responsibilities forced him to retire as a player a few years ago.
Although the Clubbers fill out their roster with other outstanding players from Western Washington, they won’t displace longtime members to do so.
“It’s been unbelievable, I look forward to it every year,” Ross said. “We have one of the funnest teams around and we have a lot of guys who want to play with us. But if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. We don’t go to nationals to win. We go to compete and do the best we can.”
The Clubbers’ self-professed “CEO,” Ross also helps out considerably on the field. After pitching for many years, he moved to second base three years ago. Still in excellent physical condition, he has few peers in his age group at the plate.
“In our (age group), we have AA, AAA, major and major-plus classifications. We’re in the 60s AAA,” Hatley noted. “But Wayne could easily play 60s major-plus, because of his power. That boy can really hit them out.”
Ross is also one of the team’s emotional centerpieces.
“He’s beyond a serious competitor,” Hatley said with a laugh.
Knowing he would retire from education in late January, Ross had intended to conclude his coaching career as a Hoquiam football assistant last fall. Grizzly head boys basketball coach Curtis Eccles, however, persuaded him to join his staff as a volunteer aide this winter and was willing to work around his availability.
“With his insight of the game, he has done a wonderful job of being able to share his thoughts on all aspects of the game during practices,” Eccles reported. “Wayne has done a wonderful job of sharing his ideas and strategies to help us maintain a winning program here at Hoquiam. He will definitely be missed.”
There are those who contend that the converse is also true. Ross’ association with Harbor high school sports has prompted speculation that he will have difficulty adapting to a different lifestyle in Arizona.
Ross, however, rejects that assumption. In addition to increasing his slow-pitch schedule, he hopes to work harder on his golf game (his current Grays Harbor residence is near Oaksridge Golf Course in Elma), take up competitive age-group tennis and possibly take a part-time job with the Arizona State University athletic department.
“I won’t miss (coaching),” Ross asserted. “I felt it was time. I have always been a person that is feast or famine, if that makes sense. I will go full bore, but when it is over, it is over.”
Rick Anderson, Daily World Sports Editor, can be reached at 537-3924 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org